Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Post-Darwinian Thinking

Over half of century before Freeman Dyson had declared this to be "the century of biology," Arthur F. Bentley (whose reputation for polemic I have already admired) was assailing the shortcomings of the logicians of his day from a Darwinian perspective. Having already taken those logicians to task for their "vagueness" (which, as I have argued, has metastasized to a malignant scale by virtue of those who continue to promote the "Semantic Web") in The Journal of Philosophy in 1945, Bentley chose to question the very foundations of their positivist agenda the following year in Philosophy of Science in an article entitled "Logicians' Underlying Postulations." An extended quotation from the introduction to this paper should give us an appreciation of why his criticism may be more relevant now than when this paper was published:

We may best characterize the situation by saying that while logicians have spent much time discussing how to apply their logic to the world, they have given almost no examination to their own position, as logicians, within the world that modern science has opened up. We may take Darwin's great demonstration of the "natural" origin of organisms as marking the start of the new era in which man himself is treated as a natural member of a universe under discovery rather than as a superior being endowed with "faculties" from above and beyond, which enable him to "oversee" it. If we do this, we find that almost all logical enterprises are still carried on in pre-Darwinian patterns. The present writer is, indeed, aware of only two systems (and one of these a suggested project rather than a developed construction) which definitely undertakes an approach in a modern manner. The rest are almost wholly operated under the blessing, if not formally in the name, of "thinkers," "selves," or superior realms of "meanings." The present memorandum will sketch the new form of approach and contrast it with typical specimens of the old.

Two great lines of distinction between pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian types of program and goals for logic may readily be set down.

While the former are found to center their attention basically upon decisions made by individual human beings (as "minds," "deciders," or otherwise "actors"), the latter describe broadly, and appraise directly, the presence and growth of knowings in the world, with "decisions" entering as passing phases of process, but not as the critical acts.

While enterprises of pre-Darwinian types require certainties, and require these to be achieved with perfection, absoluteness, or finality, the post-Darwinian logic is content to hold its results within its present human reach, and not to strive to grasp too far beyond.

Under such tests as these the recent logics of the non-Aristotelian, multivalued, and probability types all still remain in the pre-Darwinian or "non-natural" group, however they may dilute their wordings with respect to the certainties. Boole undertook a century ago to improve logic by mathematical aid, and there was great promise in that; but Russell, following the mind-steeped Frege, and himself already thoroughly indoctrinated to understanding and interpretation by way of "thought" or "judgment," reversed this, and has steadily led the fight to make logic master and guardian in the ancient manner, with never a moment's attention to the underlying problem: Quis custodiet custodes?

The heart of this Darwinian perspective concerns the question of what matters most if we are to try to take a scientific approach to the study of mind. What Bentley is saying is that, under pre-Darwinian thinking, all that really mattered about mind was how it made decisions. We have no better way of seeing how impoverished such a world view is than by examining the many failings of so-called "decision support technology," which essentially bought the positivist bill of goods, lock, stock, and barrel, and proceeded to sell that same bill on to eager customers in no end of business settings, some of which, like air traffic control, were just too "mission critical" to be entrusted with such unreliable support tools. Those post-Darwinian perspective, on the other hand, rejects the "clean" world of decisions based on formal logical calculi in favor of the far "messier" world of deliberations based on far more informal foundations, such as communications among human beings trying to cope with being-in-the-world. While a journal such as Philosophy of Science was probably too elevated a forum (particularly back in 1946) to promote an invitation to "embrace the mess," from our vantage point, from which we can see the many failings of that pre-Darwinian thinking targeted by Bentley, we can appreciate the value of that invitation and might even reflect long enough to see the wisdom of accepting it!

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